Getting the Most out of Employee Feedback
by Andrew Elowitt
(County Bar Update, August 2005, Vol. 25, No. 7)

 

Getting the Most out of Employee Feedback

 

By Andrew Elowitt, J.D., M.B.A. Elowitt is a member of the executive committees of the Law Practice Management and the Technology sections of the California and the Los Angeles County bars. With more than 20 years of experience as a business lawyer, he coaches executives, lawyers, and other service professionals, and provides organizational consulting services to the firms and businesses they lead. He is currently the managing director of NEW ACTIONS C+C. The opinions expressed are his own.

 

Every lawyer who is an employer appreciates the necessity and challenge of giving employees feedback on their job performance. Feedback is the cornerstone of employee development and a valuable, though often overlooked, tool in building morale and improving retention. As a reality check for employees, feedback lets them know how they can improve and when they are making a valuable contribution. Recent studies have shown that feedback can be more effective than training or introspection in helping employees make changes.

 

Why, if feedback is valuable and necessary, do lawyers (as well as other employers and managers) tend to avoid giving it? In situations where feedback would be appropriate and useful, lawyers often find themselves in a dilemma. They would like to address the situation, but they worry about hurting the employee’s feelings, resulting in a situation and working relationship that are worse than before. Simply put, lawyers ask themselves whether it’s worth doing anything at all.

 

It may seem safer to simply avoid giving feedback and hope that the problem will take care of itself through benign neglect or someone else’s intervention. Doing nothing may avoid conflict and leave the working relationship unharmed, but it runs the all-too-real risk of perpetuating or exacerbating problems. Faced with these unattractive alternatives, employers commonly try to resolve the dilemma by giving feedback in a way that addresses the problem but minimizes the risks of escalating conflict and emotional discomfort.

 

By taking a constructive approach, lawyers can address employee problems in a way that is clear, helpful, and sensitive to the employee’s feelings. To be constructive, feedback should be:

 

Timely. Feedback is more effective given soon after a problem occurs, often at the first appropriate time and place. Frequent, regular feedback works better than waiting until a year-end review.

 

Specific. Document problems and describe specific employee behaviors plus the impact those behaviors have had. Vague generalizations and blanket condemnations offer little useful information and are certain to increase defensiveness.

 

Supportive. Feedback is more effective when given in a tactful, compassionate manner. It works best when employees feel that their employer has a sincere interest in their improvement and well being. Blaming employees or attributing problems to their intelligence or personality will leave them feeling punished, angry, and defensive.

 

Future oriented. Acknowledging and reviewing past problems is not enough. It is important to suggest solutions and ways for the employee to improve. When an employer offers no hope for change or suggestions for improvements, the employee may feel demoralized and confused.

 

Constructive feedback likely results in an employee feeling receptive, hopeful, and better informed about how to improve performance. But even perfectly delivered constructive feedback has several built-in limitations, particularly when problems are complex and multifaceted. In those conversations, being constructive, specific, tactful, and supportive is simply not enough. Problems may be unresolved, and relationships, in spite of the employer’s good intentions, may still suffer. A different approach is called for, one that is collaborative in nature and style.

 

Collaborative feedback—a different approach. Collaborative feedback is based on a different set of assumptions about the purpose of feedback and the roles of the employer and employee. Rather than the employer acting as a wise authority or gentle teacher, the employer and employee work together to understand the entire situation and create a solution. The employer need not be concerned about thinking of clever ways to help the employee see the situation the “right” way. In fact, the employer should not automatically think that the employee is ignorant, misinformed, or in need of correction. Employers must let go of the notion that they possess the sole truth. A collaborative approach is most successful when employers hold their point of view lightly, staying open to changing it when they encounter new information and points of view.

 

With this mindset, the employer can look at the big picture and explore the entire situation, not just the employee’s behaviors that are seen as a problem. Unburdened by sole responsibility for directing the conversation, the employer can more easily and attentively listen to the employee. With this new give and take, both have the opportunity to learn from one another and understand what has happened. They can consider whether their original viewpoints are still valid and jointly design a solution to the problem at hand. In a collaborative approach, conflicts do not magically disappear. Instead of being bypassed or sugarcoated, they are addressed and resolved. When employees engage in collaborative feedback, they are more likely to feel respected, empowered, and better informed about how they can improve and how they contribute to the law office as a whole.

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